STEM Education--It's Elementary

Elementary school teachers need to be educated in science and math.


Anthony Murphy is executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. 

Increasingly, business leaders, educators, industry experts, and others are rallying around the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in education. This is a key issue for K-12 education and it's a requirement to create the kind of workforce our country needs. The Obama administration has clearly focused on this as a major education initiative and a business imperative. 

If the United States is to maintain its economic power, then we will need a STEM-educated workforce that can meet the demands of business in an increasingly complex and technology-driven economy.

In fact, a study by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that by 2018, 8 million jobs in the U.S. economy will require a college degree in STEM--170,000 in Minnesota alone, which, sadly, has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between white students and students of color in science and mathematics.

As a high school life science teacher and university professor, I have come to realize that we need to begin STEM education early with our children, certainly in elementary school and possibly even younger.

Children at birth are natural scientists, engineers, and problem-solvers. They consider the world around them and try to make sense of it the best way they know how: touching, tasting, building, dismantling, creating, discovering, and exploring. For kids, this isn't education. It's fun!

Yet, research documents that by the time students reach fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost an interest in science. By eighth grade, almost 50 percent have lost interest or deemed it irrelevant to their education or future plans. At this point in the K–12 system, the STEM pipeline has narrowed to half. That means millions of students have tuned out or lack the confidence to believe they can do science.

Effective teachers with content knowledge in science and mathematics play a key role in student achievement. Many STEM teachers in high school and middle school have a degree or a minor in their subjects, but elementary teachers are generalists and typically major in education.

So, if teachers at the elementary level are generalists, are they even prepared to teach STEM effectively? Research shows that many elementary teachers feel anxious about teaching STEM subjects. If they themselves lack confidence, how can they impart passion and knowledge to their students?

Those are the questions that St. Catherine University is aiming to address at our National Center for STEM Elementary Education. We have developed a program that helps elementary teachers overcome anxiety, get immersed in STEM topics and develop the confidence to become effective teachers for tomorrow's needs.

St. Kate's elementary education majors are now required to complete a STEM certificate for initial licensure. The certificate is three interdisciplinary courses--in biology, chemistry, and physics/engineering--a unique feature of the certificate.

The courses are co-taught by STEM and education faculty team members who collaborate to create a positive and productive learning environment for teachers-in-training. Content is academically rigorous and meets state and national standards.

In addition, these elementary education majors receive STEM teaching experience prior to their student teaching assignment in the university's unique Eco-STARS partnership program. Eco-STARS includes training, mentoring by teachers at partner schools, and supervision by university education faculty to provide effective feedback.

St. Kate's elementary majors emerge from this experience more confident and comfortable in teaching science. In fact, many of them are being asked in their student teaching assignment to teach science and engineering, and the STEM certificate is credited with helping graduates secure teaching positions in a tight economic climate.